Arachnid Tracker

Lauren Esposito studies the incredible world of spiders and scorpions

KATHRYN WHITNEY/CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES

HANDLE WITH CARE: Lauren Esposito keeps an African flat rock scorpion in her office—luckily, its sting is relatively mild.

Back in 2012, Lauren Esposito and a team of scientists trekked through the lush forests of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. Eventually, the group came to the mouth of a cave. After putting on thick gloves and hard hats with headlamps, they stepped into the darkness. The cave was overwhelmingly hot and humid, and filled with thousands of bats. It was also crawling with what the researchers had come in search of: spiders. The creatures were climbing all over the rock walls.

Esposito’s group got to work collecting the spiders in vials and jars. Then they took their haul back to their campsite to examine. When they put a particularly large specimen—nearly the size of a person’s hand—under the microscope for a closer look, everyone gasped. The huge spider had no eyes. The scientists knew right away that they had discovered a species new to science.

Esposito studies arachnids, like spiders and scorpions. Since 2004, she has discovered more than 50 new species. When she’s not in the field, she helps manage the arachnid collection as a museum curator at the California Academy of Sciences. Esposito talked to Science World about these amazing eight-legged critters.

What’s a typical day like for you?

There’s really no such thing, which is why I love my job. I spend about half my time on the road, presenting at conferences or collecting specimens and data in the field. When I’m in the office, I have a lot of duties. I teach and mentor students, and I also help plan exhibits at the museum.

PHIL TORRES/COURTESY OF LAUREN ESPOSITO

IN THE FIELD: Esposito collects arachnid specimens.

How did you become interested in studying animals and doing fieldwork?

In college, I took a field biology course where we spent a week at a beach in Mexico doing research projects. I decided to dig up fiddler crabs, which have one huge claw and one tiny one. I wanted to see how many had a big right claw versus a big left claw—in other words, are they more often righthanded or left-handed? I was surprised nobody had ever studied that before.

PHIL TORRES/COURTESY OF LAUREN ESPOSITO

GATHERING SPIDERS: Esposito collects delicate arachnids in Malaysia using an aspirator, or suction tube.

Back then, I had this idea that humans had already discovered everything there was to discover. That project showed me I was wrong. It got me excited to see how much we still have to learn about the world.

Why is it important to study arachnids?

RICHARD J. GREEN/SCIENCE SOURCE

Arachnids have been around since before the dinosaurs. They can teach us how animals survive over time as their surroundings change. They’re also very important to the environment—they perform what’s called an ecosystem service by preying on insects that eat plants. By eating bugs, arachnids help keep populations within an ecosystem stable and maintain balance among different species.

“Most spiders can't even bite people.”
—Lauren Esposito

Why do you think many people are afraid of spiders and scorpions?

BARBARA STRNADOVA/SCIENCE SOURCE

For one thing, the way they move is really alien to us. We’re not used to seeing things scurry around on the ceiling on eight legs! Also, some arachnids are venomous—they inject toxins when they sting or bite—so people think all arachnids can hurt them. But the truth is that fewer than 1 percent of all arachnids are dangerous to humans. Most spiders can’t even bite people—their fangs are too small to pierce human skin!

You launched a website that showcases hundreds of scientists who identify as LGBTQ+. What inspired that project?

I started an organization called 500 Queer Scientists, which spotlights people like me who identify as LGBTQ+. I realized early in my career that as far as I knew, I had never worked with another LGBTQ+ person. That made me feel very alone. It made me question whether there was a place for me in science because I didn’t see people like myself represented. So I started 500 Queer Scientists as a way for LGBTQ+ professionals to find and support each other.

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